“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.” – Psalm 172:1
For 300 years, the Lord has been building a house, here at the corner of Pollock & Middle Streets in downtown New Bern. I am certain that there were times when the labor of the people working with God was in vain because they put their own needs or desires ahead of what God actually wanted this place to be and who God wanted this church to be for this community and for the world. But if their labor had been too much in vain, we would not be here, having an Annual Meeting in the midst of our 300th Year. For a nation that is only 239 years old, a community of faithful worshipers gathering for 300 years is not too shabby, it it!?
As I prayed about what to say today, both looking at our Scripture and knowing it was our Annual Meeting, I had running through my head parts of the sermon Presiding Bishop Michael Curry preached last Sunday at his installation. He has been talking for a while, since before his election this summer, about a Jesus Movement to help bring reconciliation and justice to our world, calling on Christians and non-Christians alike to look at the teachings of Jesus for how we can turn the world upside down, which is to really turn it right side up. He cited Jesus’ interaction with the young lawyer who asked him which was the greatest law, to which Jesus replied, “’You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets.” (Matthew 27:37-40) Bishop Curry continued:
This is really a stunning declaration. On these two—love of God and love of your neighbor—hang, hinge, depend ALL the law and the prophets.
Everything Moses taught.
Everything the prophets thundered forth about justice.
Everything in the Bible.
It’s about love of God and the neighbor.
If it’s not about love, then it’s not about God.
The other piece that has stuck with me, and you’ll have to watch the video because it wasn’t in the transcript that was made available, he said part of the Jesus Movement is to look at the world ask what is possible, not merely to be content with the way things are. In order for us to help see this Jesus Movement bear fruit here in New Bern and beyond, we have to explore what can be, and not bask or bemoan what is. As your rector, I don’t want this church (or any church for that matter) to “get by” or to “survive.” I want Christ Church, New Bern, to THRIVE, to BE BOLD in proclaiming this Jesus Movement. In order to do that, we can’t simply look to the way it’s always been done. Gone are the days when the church can open the doors and expect people to flow in. We have to identify ways to take Jesus to people who need to hear that message of an unwavering, unfiltered, holy love. Strategy sessions and hand wringing won’t always do the trick either. We may end up stumbling upon the best ways, and we may fail a few times as well. But if we trust in God to lead us, we know our labors will not be in vain. We will find success even in what we think may be a failure. God has ways of working things out in ways we cannot begin to imagine. That’s why God is God, and we are not.
The story of Ruth & Naomi & Boaz that we heard in our Old Testament lesson this morning is a great example of how God can and often does go outside the “norm” or “expected” to accomplish the Holy things that God wants to happen. Naomi is a Jewish woman married to a Jewish man with two Jewish sons. They move to an area lacking Jewish brides, so the two sons take Moabite wives and before they can have children, the sons die, as does Naomi’s husband. Now, tradition would hold that Naomi would go back to her people the greater Bethlehem area and her daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah, would go back to their people. But Ruth says, “No, I’m going to go with you, wherever that may be.” There’s this statute in the laws of Moses called the Law of the Kinsman Redeemer. It basically says that if a man dies and he and his wife are childless, it’s up to one of that man’s kin, be it a brother or cousin, to have children with the other man’s wife so that his name will live on. Ruth meets Boaz while they are gleaning from the fields, and Naomi figures out that Boaz is related to her husband and sons and therefore could be great “match” if you will for Ruth. (Scripture doesn’t say if Boaz had other wives, but Ruth was likely not his one-and-only.) Boaz takes Ruth for a wife and they have a son, Obed. Obed was the father of Jesse, who was the father of David, the Psalmist and the King.
God deviated from the expected route to fulfill the Divine Plan. Obed’s mother, Ruth, King David’s great-grandmother, was a Moabite, someone who was not supposed to be in the lineage of an Israelite King. God broke from the “norm” when setting up a path to Jesus. Sometimes it makes us uncomfortable or warry when God does what is unexpected, but I am convinced that that is how God keeps us on our toes and paying attention. Who would have expected God to choose a wondering, sometimes ornery people to make a great Nation? Yet, God chose the Jews. Who would have expected God to choose a non-Jewish woman to carry on the linage that would bring forth another unexpected choice for a King of Israel? Who would have expected God to choose a small, out of the way place like Nazareth to be the hometown of the Messiah? And even though in our Anglican history, we have had plenty of amazing and prophetic preachers, who would have expected God to choose one from our current time to be the 27th Presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church?
The question is: What are we (you, me, Christ Church) doing to make a path to Jesus for those who need to hear the message? Whether the path is expected or unexpected, whether the path is as a flat and straight as a coastal highway or as hilly and curvy as a mountain pass, what are we doing to follow that path and walk with others along way that leads to Jesus?
I believe that we are continuing to find ways to be the hands, feet, and voice of Jesus in the word. I believe that in the years to come, the ways in which God is moving and leading us will become clearer and clearer. Our prayer should be that our eyes and hearts will be open to see God’s hand at work in the world about us.
“Unless the Lord builds the house, their labor is in vain who build it.”